1960-1963: President Kennedy envisions a federal program to combat poverty
While campaigning in West Virginia, President John F. Kennedy was faced with the real impacts of poverty. Seeing people struggle even in a time of economic prosperity, he set out to create a federal program that would alleviate the problems of economically depressed areas.
1963-1964: President Johnson continues Kennedy's agenda and declares War on Poverty
After President Kennedy’s assassination, President Lyndon B. Johnson took up the reigns of President Kennedy’s domestic agenda and at his first State of the Union Address in January 1964, declared a War on Poverty. He appointed Sargent Shriver, Kennedy’s brother-in-law, to serve as his special assistant in the war and a task force was formed. The end result was the Economic Opportunity Act, signed into law on August 20, 1964.
The Economic Opportunity Action of 1964
The Economic Opportunity Act established seven titles that developed programs to combat poverty, including the creation of the Community Action Program and several other programs that still exist today. The Act embodied a work-and-training model rather than an income transfer strategy. The goal was not to redistribute tax dollars, but to equip low-income people with the skills to work their way out of poverty.
The task force that drafted the Act felt that these programs would not be successful without including low-income people in the process and as such, included the concept of “Maximum Feasible Participation” as a core value of the Community Action Program, which meant that low-income people would serve on the boards of Community Action Agencies. This gave a voice to low-income African Americans, particularly in the south, and would cause controversy as the program progressed. The program was also deliberately crafted to allow flexibility for these local, non-profit Community Action Agencies to plan and develop projects tailored to the specific needs of their communities.
The Act also established the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) to govern the programs under the Act.
1965: Federal Poverty Guidelines are established
In May of 1965, the OEO adopted a poverty threshold that would become the federal poverty guidelines used to this day to determine income eligibility for many government programs. The guideline uses a formula developed by Mollie Orshansky, a social science research analyst in the Social Security Administration who took the costs of foods to maintain a minimum diet for a family of three or more as determined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and multiplied it by three because in 1955 families spent approximately one-third of their after-tax income on food.
1967-1968: The Green Amendment gives local elected officials more control of CAAs
Tensions continued over the idea of giving low-income African Americans a voice. Community Action Agencies were even blamed for race riots, though a report from the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorder disagreed. This led Representative Edith Green from Oregon to introduce an amendment providing for greater control of Community Action Agencies by local elected officials. Her amendment, known as the Green Amendment, required that Community Action Agencies be designated by the state. It also gave more uniform structure to the boards of directors, creating a tri-partite board that still exists today where one-third of the members are elected public officials or their representatives, one-third are low-income people, and one-third are representatives from private businesses or non-profit organizations.
In 1967 at the last possible hour of the legislative session, Congress passed a two-year reauthorization of the Economic Opportunity Act that included the Green Amendment.
The Community Action program is seeing results
By 1968, the Office of Economic Opportunity was supporting approximately 1,600 Community Action Agencies, covering 2,300 of the nation’s 3,300 counties. During the early period of the Act, from 1964 to 1967 the number of people rising out of poverty each year more than doubled compared to 1959 to 1964.
1970-1974: President Nixon continues the OEO
The 1970s began under President Richard Nixon, who at first decided to keep the Office of Economic Opportunity and appointed Donald Rumsfeld to manage it, but did re-direct some programs to other federal agencies and determined that the OEO should serve as an incubator for new programs during their initial, experimental phase.
Nixon has a change of heart and Donald Rumsfeld and CAAs fight for Community Action
During the first few years of the 1970s, the OEO and Community Action programs fell under attack. First by the General Accounting Office, which claimed other agencies could run the programs and there was mismanagement, to which Rumsfeld responded with a reorganization. Then by members of Congress, which Rumsfeld successfully fought. Then in January 1973, President Nixon sought to dismantle the OEO.
Many unions representing Community Action employees filed lawsuits and on April 11, 1973 received a favorable ruling calling for the dismantling to be ceased. Lawsuits by various parties continued and it was ruled that programs could be delegated to other agencies, which some were.
In January 1974, the President proposed zero funding for the OEO. Community Action Agencies fought this, and later that year the President resigned rather than face impeachment charges.
1975-1979: President Ford signs the Community Services Act
On January 4, 1975, President Gerald Ford signed the Community Services Act, which established the Community Services Administration (CSA) as the successor to the OEO and authorized the agency and its programs through 1978. But it also gradually increased the non-federal share of funds required to receive grants from 20 percent to a high of 40 percent (which was moved back to 20 percent in 1978), and once again the President proposed zero funding in the budget for the following year. The new CSA was an operating agency charged with the delivery of programs rather than an incubator for change. By 1976, the CSA received funding and under President Jimmy Carter, the agency kept a low profile. Through the remaining of the 1970s funding either increased or remained the same.
CAAs create Energy Assistance Programs in response to oil embargo
Also during the 1970s Community Action Agencies recognized that low-income households were facing energy-related problems. Due to the oil embargo, they were struggling to cover the costs of home heating fuels. Several agencies used their local initiative funds and developed weatherization programs, making home repairs and installing insulation. In 1974, Congress authorized the CSA to fund services to ease the burden of high energy costs on low-income households. Weatherization programs, crisis intervention and programs to help with overdue utility bills were put in place that are still being run by CAAs today.
President Reagan established the Community Services Block Grant
The Community Action ideology did not mesh with President Ronald Reagan’s views. He set out to dismantle the CSA, but had learned from the previous attempts to dismantle the OEO and did so legally, moving programs to other agencies. In 1981 he also created the Community Services Block Grant (CSBG), which would be granted to states to fund CAAs. The CSBG program had less of an effect than expected and in some cases actually eased the complexity of programs for CAAs. The functions of the CSA were transferred to the Office of Community Services within the Department of Health and Human Services, where it remains today.
Reagan proceeded unsuccessfully to terminate the CSBG program from 1984 through 1987.
Community Action continues
Between 1992 and 1996, the total monetary value of the CSBG program declined, but from 1997 through 2000 there was a trend of modest increases.
In 1998, the Office of Community Services rolled out the Results-Oriented Management Accountability (ROMA) program to establish the effectiveness and accountability of CAAs. The program that is still used today measures outcomes and is a means for CAAs to continually evaluate the effectiveness of their programs and meet the requirements of the Government Performance and Results Act enacted in 1993.
Through the first decade of the 21st century the struggles for federal funding have continued as Congress and presidential administrations have battled over the rising federal deficit. Community Action programs have continued to be supported through Congress’ ongoing funding of CSBG, the Home Weatherization Assistance Program (HWAP), and Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP) – the core funding programs of CAAs.
ARRA Stimulus Package brings additional funding to CAAs
In 2009, President Barack Obama proposed the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act (ARRA), also known as the stimulus package, to reinvigorate the economy after the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. With the stimulus package, he more than doubled funding for the Home Weatherization Assistance Program – a program predominantly administered by CAAs. On September 26, 2012 the 1 millionth home was weatherized under the stimulus program.
50th Anniversary of the War on Poverty
2014 marks the 50th Anniversary of the War on Poverty and the creation of Community Action Agencies.